By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
Que Paso columnist
(Originally published in the High Plains Reader September 15, 2009 by Cindy Shawcross*)
On September 15th, Former President Carter made a statement in reference to Joe Wilson’s outburst and the mood of some of the opposition to President Obama saying that he felt “…an overwhelming portion of the intentionally demonstrated animosity toward Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African-American. I live in the South, and I’ve seen the South come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country, that shared the South’s attitude toward minority groups, particularly African-Americans.” Nevertheless, racism “still exists and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”
Now, despite the White House essentially dispatching Carter’s statements, there is a heated debate over the issue of race which, unfortunately, is detracting from Obama’s intense efforts to do his job as president and, in particular, to pass healthcare reform. But, the comments by Carter are shared by many in America, both minorities and non. Everyone agrees that the “debate” in this country over policy issues have “coarsened,” but the way in which that “coarsening” has manifested is what many minority leaders, as well as Americans of all persuasions are calling “racist.”
Examination of this election cycle illustrated Carter’s point. During Obama’s campaign for the presidency we saw images and comments that many called “racist” like a California GOP group putting Obama on food stamps surrounded by images of fried chicken and watermelon; where conservative groups sold “Obama Waffles” showing Obama on the cover in an Aunt Jemima style box with yet another image of Obama wearing Islamic headdress on the bottom of the box.
Carter and other pundits have equated Joe Wilson’s “outburst” as the tip of the iceberg in a climate that has shown protesters and Congressional leaders questioning Obama’s legitimacy through the “birther” movement as a non-citizen and as an illegitimate president; where people are crying out “we want our country back” implying that Obama is not one of them. The examples of overtly racist rhetoric and threats against the life of President Obama are too many to enumerate here, but they are clearly unlike anything we have ever seen in history.
The debate during Obama’s presidency, especially during town hall meetings on health care, have only served to widen the divide. When referring to the types of behaviors, signs and arguments (like that of Joe Wilson) aimed at Obama, Carter put it well when he said, “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care,” he said. “It’s deeper than that.”
Most recently, an outcry from conservatives over Obama’s Presidential address to American students again raised questions about race. Many news sources were criticizing the President for “indoctrinating” children with a socialist agenda before they had even heard the speech. Lowell Wolff, administrator for community relations and planning for Fargo schools, said there were many calls from concerned parents even before the speech aired; some of which he described as “intense.” Wolff pointed out that the school system is a publicly funded entity headed by the President, and noted that the scuttlebutt over the speech actually presented many “teachable moments.” He noted that activists requesting that the President’s speech not be aired could be equated to “censorship,” and asked, “Does not the president also have the right to free speech?” Ironically, after Obama spoke, he received many calls by parents which felt all school children should have been required to watch the speech.
Fargo School Superintendent Rick Buresh stated that although there were calls protesting Obama’s speech, he did not sense that any were specifically “racially” motivated, adding that he felt that many people were simply misinformed and thought Obama’s speech had something to do with healthcare reform. Commenting on President Carter’s observations on race, Buresh stated that he felt much of the sentiments were a symptom of a “hypersensitive public in a highly charged political climate.” The Fargo school system did give teachers the option of showing the speech to students if it fit into the curriculum and/or the students’ schedules, and according to school officials, many students did get the opportunity to watch the President’s speech.
Superintendent Buresh stated that after seeing the speech he found nothing objectionable about it; that in fact the schools strive to send the same message the President gave to students and that it was great “to have the president of the United States reinforce that message.”
John Strand, serving on the school board said he was pleased that “there was no roadblock in Fargo that would prevent student bodies from viewing the speech,” adding that it was a sign of respect to the presidency that Fargo made this choice when others were choosing to censor the speech. Although Grand Forks and East Grand Forks schools did not air the speech, they did give teachers a choice to show the speech to their students in the future. However, most school officials interviewed were really caught off guard and quite surprised by the reaction to a simple presidential address. Superintendent Buresh said, “We are in a very polarized media climate,” and “maybe this a part of our new reality.”
As a growing Latino population continues to gain political representation; and while the minorities in America continue to call for equity even in our own Fargo-Moorhead area, politicians seem oblivious to the political suicide that they are courting by polarizing our country over the issue of race. My 16 year old daughter, Sara Siqueiros, said it best when she complained that she had not had the opportunity to watch the President’s address to students and that Latino and other minority children need to see minorities in leadership that they can look up to. She added, “You know Mom, America thought that we passed the ‘big test’ in showing we are not a racist nation by electing Obama as our president. But it is how we respect him throughout his presidency that is the real test.” Out of the mouths of babes….
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*Original publication in HPR under the author’s former last name Shawcross and email. Updates to HPR’s website have inaccurately changed the name of the post publisher and date. Original post date listed above.
**Current contact email updated.